Khabibulin must rise to next level

By null, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 27, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There was blood in the water, and already, you wondered.

The New Jersey team was bouncing around, smiling and hugging and celebrating to beat the Devil. The Lightning looked on, a little glassy eyed, a little lost. And then the question arose.

Would Brodeur have stopped it?

The shot had come from close range, so it's possible he would not have. The Lightning defense had divided like the Red Sea, and you have to take that into consideration. Rebounds can be hard to control, as everybody knows.

Still, you wonder.

With the game on the line, with victory in the air, with possibilities alive again, would the opposing goalie have somehow, some way made the play?

Would Brodeur have stopped it?

We know this much. Nikolai Khabibulin did not. Jamie Langenbrunner snapped a crisp shot off, and the puck bounded off him like a racquetball off a wall. Khabibulin waved at the puck with his stick and missed, and Langenbrunner skated, unchecked by Vinny Lecavalier, and took the puck, glided past Khabibulin and slid it into the net.

Would Brodeur have stopped it?

Maybe. But it's easy to wonder, and there's the rub.

Going into the Eastern Conference semifinals, everyone knew the best hope of the Lightning. Khabibulin had to be the team's best player. Simple as that. He had to be the Bulin Wall. He had to be magnificent.

Two games, two defeats, and he hasn't been. He hasn't been terrible, but he hasn't been terrific.

For the Lightning, that's a terrible tradeoff.

This is the baffling thing about Khabibulin. When he is on, the way he was in that magnificent Game 6 performance against Washington, he can lift a team on his shoulders and carry it to the finish line. He can feed energy to weary players, cover up the mistakes of flawed ones, provide hope to desperate ones. He can amaze you, enthrall you, captivate you.

On the other hand, there have been too many games lately when he also can cost you your hair, times when he allows too many second chances, times when he seems just a heartbeat away from greatness.

Compare that to the consistent elegance of the Devils' Martin Brodeur, the man Khabibulin is expected to match this series. Brodeur is always Brodeur, it seems. As often as any star in any sport, he operates near his optimum level.

Even so, the Lightning led 2-1 with 10 minutes to play and Khabibulin didn't hold it. He has had trouble in the postseason with one-goal leads (he lost three in Game 3 against the Caps) and this time, the puck trickled off Grant Marshall's skates and past him for the tying goal. Would Brodeur have stopped that? Ha. Brodeur would have taken a bite out of that one.

To contrast, consider the save Brodeur made on Martin St. Louis in the third period. The Lightning led 2-1, and another goal might have buried the Devils and evened the series. But even as Brodeur was splayed out, he reached up and plucked St. Louis' shot out of the sky to keep the game close.

It was a more difficult play, frankly, than either of the last two goals Khabibulin gave up.

Okay, here comes the requisite paragraph for goalie defenders: Yes, the goals were tough chances. Absolutely. Yes, there was traffic. Definitely. Yes, it is a lot to ask. No argument.

On the other hand, Khabibulin is a world-class goalie. It isn't too much for a team built around him to ask for an above-and-beyond play to turn a game around. And isn't part of greatness the ability to allow teams to count on it?

The Lightning has played eight playoff games this year, and Khabibulin had one A-plus game. Maybe he gets an A-minus for Game 5 vs. Washington, but if you give him more than a B for any other game you're grading on the curve.

Call it greedy, but the Lightning need Khabibulin to be better than this.

Frankly, now would be good.

We can assume the Lightning feels much the same because when coach John Tortorella was asked if he was disturbed about the amount of second chances the Lightning was giving up, he said this: "Yes."

Torts, in other words, was a tad snippy after the game. He was asked six questions, and he answered them in exactly 70 words - the length of this paragraph - before stalking out of the room. Considering his team is two games down, and he says some players are satisfied with winning one round, and Vinny Lecavalier is invisible, and the power play produced nothing, that's a true economy of words.

If Tortorella is going to feel better anytime soon, it most likely will be because of his goaltender. That's the paradox of the position. The more often you're average, the more your team counts on you to rise above it.

As for Khabibulin, he shrugs. Rebounds are hard, he said. He didn't see the second goal, he said.

"I think you can always play better," Khabibulin said. "I'll try to be better next game."

Perhaps he will be. The most endearing part of this Lightning team has been its ability to take a punch. It's a resilient lot, and it will not go away quietly.

If the Lightning is going to get back into this series, however, we all know where it starts. It starts by Khabibulin turning back into a great player.

Can he be as good as Brodeur?

If the Lightning is to win, he'll have to be better.